April 5, 2023

On Finding Awe and Being a Human in the Cosmos with Sasha Sagan

Daughter of “Cosmos” co-writer Ann Druyan and astronomer Carl Sagan, Sasha talks with host Adam Gamwell about the power of ritual for making meaning across life, death, nature, and more. She also shares how she learned to ask questions, the value of finding awe in the most mundane of rituals, and how turning our attention anew to the natural world can help us add wonder back into our lives.

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us individually and as a global cohort to reassess how and why we live the ways that we do and what really matters to us. Through the pandemic, we may have also felt moments of awe at the natural world and questioned our place in it.

In moments like these, we’re afforded glimpses into how we choose to operate in the world and understand our place in relation to everything else. Rituals play a key role in helping us make sense of the world around us, yet we often forget that they’re even there. Today’s guest, Sasha Sagan, picks up on this thread through her writing and podcast work.

Daughter of “Cosmos” co-writer Ann Druyan and astronomer Carl Sagan, Sasha talks with host Adam Gamwell about the power of ritual for making meaning across life, death, nature, and more. She also shares how she learned to ask questions, the value of finding awe in the most mundane of rituals, and how turning our attention anew to the natural world can help us add wonder back into our lives.

Show Highlights:

  • [06:53] What inspired Sasha to create her podcast “Strange Customs”
  • [13:04] How Sasha’s parents taught her to love and ask questions
  • [21:30] How parents may inadvertently teach their children to stop asking questions
  • [29:33] Our beliefs and customs around language and communication
  • [37:56] How Sasha thinks about different media as different methods for storytelling
  • [47:56] How we dress up scientific phenomena in beliefs and customs
  • [59:19] Why people are getting more creative with how they tackle life-defining moments
  • [01:00:45] How we can demonstrate anthropology’s value
  • [01:03:37] How we can add awe back into our lives

Links and Resources:


[00:00:00] Adam Gamwell: Hello and welcome to This Anthro Life, a podcast about the little things we do as people that shape the course of humanity. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. I got a question for you: when you were a kid, what was your favorite activity to do outside involving nature? Did you like to crunch leaves after collecting them in a big pile during the fall? Or were you a summer baby that loved watching fireflies after a warm sunset? Maybe you even caught a few in a jar or two. You know, I remember marveling at the stars as a kid from the burbs. I thought it was so cool that you could see Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper and recognize the different patterns and constellations. And as I would come to find out, the stars were so far away. Nature was huge. It's funny that scientific thinking only becomes more pervasive in our everyday lives as we get older. Think about this: many of us brush our teeth every day. In fact, it's so rote that we don't give it much thought. But behind this little ritual is knowledge about tooth enamel and biology and diet, genetics and physiology, and sure some marketing. I mean, I want fresh minty breath and white teeth, too. There's just so much going on behind this little simple ritual, and I literally never think about it. Now, if we move up on scale, most of us notice and have a sense of awe and wonder over having a baby. We're more aware of the medical side of things, but we also have baby showers and naming rituals, and so, so many other kinds of customs. And if we take things even broader, the pandemic has forced many of us individually as communities and as a global cohort to reassess how we live the ways that we do and why and what really matters to us. We are reminded that nature isn't something that we can control and that our scientific knowledge, as great as it is, does have limits. While more frightening and uncertain and shaken out of our everyday routines that often run an autopilot, through the pandemic we may have also felt moments of awe at the natural world and questioned our place in it. In moments like these, we are also afforded even if briefly glimpses of our operating systems, like how we choose to operate in the world and understand our place in relation to everything else. Rituals and customs are like programs in that operating system and they play such an important role in our lives for helping us make meaning, mark important moments or changes, and to feel in conversation with the rhythms of the world around us. So isn't it kind of crazy then that we often forget that this operating system and our knowledge of it are even there?

[00:02:25] So I was absolutely delighted to come across a new podcast called "Strange Customs" that focuses on these very human questions. And not only that, but the host of this podcast is none other than Sasha Sagan. Now, Sasha has led a life steeped in the exploration of what's our place on this planet and, well, the wider cosmos. As we'll talk about in the episode, she's also the daughter of astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan and producer Ann Druyan. Now, while most of us know them from books like Pale Blue Dot and TV shows like Cosmos and movies like Contact, Sasha will share how they as parents shaped her love of deep and important questions around our place and the planet and, as you can imagine, the cosmos. She not only knows how to ask a good question, but also how to craft compelling narratives in pursuit of answers — and already an accomplished writer. In 2019, after becoming a mother, Sasha penned the book For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, in which she explores the profound power of ritual for making meaning across life, death, history, and nature, and more. The book is also a wonderful blend of memoir, nonfiction, and human insights that serves as a palette through which she paints the kind of life that she would want to build for her children. Her podcast "Strange Customs" picks up on these threads through entertaining and thought-provoking conversations with friends, writers, actors, poets, and scholars. One of the cool things she does is ask each guest on the podcast what ritual they might reinvent for themselves or their families. And as you'll see, Sasha has an infectious energy that carries through from her writing to podcast work and today's conversation, and this is no mistake.

[00:04:00] One of the major themes of our conversation is how to wrestle with our modernist tendencies to promote a more disinterested attitude towards nature and natural phenomenon. The sense of wonder and awe that so many of us felt as children, like watching a leaf fall or a butterfly emerge from a cocoon or maybe even thinking about brushing your teeth, is often socialized out of us. Once we know how some kind of natural phenomenon works, it somehow feels less special or awe-inducing to us. We forget the magic of everyday life until something comes along that disrupts that flow. Now, you dear listener of This Anthro Life may be thinking, no, no. Not me, Mister. And I hear you. Not to worry. As we're gonna discuss, this is a general tendency. It's not something that everybody does all the time, but I do think it's pervasive enough that you probably recognize this, too. Hey, that's one of the reasons we need podcasts like this, right? So Sasha helps us get to the heart of this challenge, and I cannot wait to share it with you. So let's dive on in right after a quick word from this episode's sponsor.

[00:05:01] Sasha, so exciting to have you on the podcast. I'm a huge admirer of your work and just it's really exciting to see, you know, such a voice out there in terms of helping us connect science and secularism and spirituality and ways of adding wonder and awe back to our lives when evidence can still be a part of the equation, which I think is really cool. So thank you so much for joining me on the show today.

[00:05:20] Sasha Sagan: Oh, I'm delighted to be talking to you, Adam. Thank you so much. Yeah, I think it's true. Evidence is not just like it can be part of the equation, it can be central to the equation. Like and I think that, you know, that's something that we have this idea that like if something's provable, it somehow lessens the magic of it. And, you know, I guess we can sort of always get into the semantics of like what makes something magical, but I just think there's so much astonishing, thrilling beauty that is totally evidence-based, and it's just a matter of framing it that way often.

[00:06:00] Adam Gamwell: And actually that question or the idea of framing it is actually so important too as we find ourselves in the early but getting to sort of middle part of the 21st century now too and, you know, reflecting on what is our place as humans as we, you know, find ourselves spinning through the cosmos, as it were. And, you know, one of the projects that you've been working on recently that I'm excited to talk to you about is your podcast "Strange Customs." And, you know, when I first saw the show and came across it, I was excited because it's like, oh, this is a very anthropological look at, you know, what's happening, why do we do the weird things that we do, and then thinking about the different ways that you come at it. And so I'd love to talk a bit about that too just in terms of like what inspired you to make this show and, you know, how do you pick your guests and your topics? You know, we have episodes on language. We have episodes on identity. So all these really great and important salient pieces. And then something that you mentioned before we kicked off here was like an episode in fashion would be cool one day, which I agree. The costumes that we wear — always interesting.

[00:06:53] Sasha Sagan: Yeah. Well, yeah, I love I mean I love podcasts. I love audiobooks. Like I really since childhood have like just loved that medium of like listening to someone tell you a story. I think 'cause my parents read to me a lot when I was little and maybe just there's something almost biological about, you know, I'm not visual. Like I'm a listener. I'm a ear — my ears work better than my eyes maybe. And, you know, I just I mean really the real inspiration like going as far back as you can to this is like this idea — I mean, my parents raised me very much with this idea that the more we understand about our place in the universe and how small we are and the possibility that maybe, maybe, maybe somewhere out there, there might be some other life form, maybe even intelligent life. And, you know, the less that we think of ourselves as the end-all be-all, the only way, you know, the more what we do seems kind of arbitrary and kind of funny. And I think there's a way — I mean, I really, you know, we do talk about like, you know, quite big topics on "Strange Customs," but we try to do it pretty lightheartedly and with a sort of sense of humor about ourselves, and like each episode starts like pretty tongue in cheek with the idea of like how like imagining some extraterrestrial studying our weird behavior. What would they make of us? But like my parents really my dad especially really put these questions to me in childhood of like how would you explain this strange thing we're doing or why do we do this this way? And I think there's something parallel about being secular that kind of puts you on the outside often in a culture that it — and I'm not just secular, but I'm a secular Jew. So I'm not just that I'm not a believer, but I'm also not in the majority culture in this country. And so there's something about that position that, you know, things that are very common, very normal to, you know, maybe most of the other people, you know, don't seem so, you know, normal. They seem like they require some explanation. And so I've wanted to do this podcast for, you know, a couple years and I'm so excited to finally be doing it. And really what, you know, in terms of each episode, first I find a guest, some interesting person who is a writer or an artist or an actor or, you know, any number of things like that, and ask them like, what do you wanna talk about that's in this genre? What do you feel like is weird? What do you think about, you know, in your own life and ask yourself like, what is this about? And from there, we kind of build an episode.

[00:09:40] Adam Gamwell: Right on. That's great, too. I mean, for a number of reasons in terms of how do we get people's passions to come out in a story, right? And I think it's one of the most powerful ways that we can do that, you know? We are the storytelling animal, you know? It's an important part of who we are. And then, the best part about that too is as you're saying there is that we do so many strange and wonderful things as this species. And then, I think also just like the power, I mean, what I also enjoy about it too is when you get to hear somebody else's story and as they're thinking through something that's like, I mean, it's weird as it is to say, it's like, oh, I use language. I have an identity, right? I have parents that I've related to in the past. And so it's like these interesting questions of, you know, how do we connect with others? And so there's this kind of empathetic building that can happen, you know? That's an important part I think. And one of the things I remember from one of the episodes — first one I listened to was with Jedidiah Jenkins, you know, and the idea of taking road trips with your family is was a really interesting idea, you know? This notion of like taking your mom on a road trip later. And I was like, I'd never thought about doing that. I'm actually taking a road trip myself by myself, you know, in actually in a few weeks. And I was like, I should actually get my mom to come along, you know?

[00:10:47] Sasha Sagan: That's so great. I mean, well, there's — right, it's like this one of the — so that episode, you know, we sort of talk about like in most of the episodes we talk about like what is a ritual that you would want to create around something? And Jedidiah Jenkins, who's a close friend of mine and a writer, really interesting person and really an adventurous spirit, you know, world traveler, a lot of his writing is about his travels, talked about how now what he's working on is going on these trips individually with each of his parents and sort of either to a place that, you know, they grew up or to a place they always wanted to go. And sort of, I mean, it's kind of it's almost like he's doing a little bit of anthropology in a very small sample, you know? Studying one very specific group, his two parents, and trying to understand them more deeply. And I think that, you know, there's something really amazing about that. You know, the way we examine ourselves individually, the way we examine the people who are closest to us, most influential to us, and then try to take a step back and examine our whole, you know, society or our whole species. There's some throughline there that I think is something really valuable to do on all those levels.

[00:12:07] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. No, I agree too, and it makes me think about this broader idea. You mentioned this a little bit before about the kind of recognizing your own positionality, you know, when it comes to being a secular Jew in the US and how that can make what is, quote unquote, normal to other people — WASPs we might say, right? These White Anglo-Saxon Protestants — you know, stand out as all the more on one level performative, like I'm trying to do something, you know, but at the same time also like it can be deeply personal and meaningful to folks and, you know, be steeped in belief or steeped in, you know, superstition. It can be steeped in just something that I wanna do, right? But how you see that kind of from your own position. So I'd love to think about this too in terms of, you know, your own story obviously. You know, you have a very famous upbringing, you know, and how that kind of shaped how do we learn to ask what is my position place? What is our place in this, you know, pale blue dot, we might say? What do you think about that?

[00:13:04] Sasha Sagan: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, it's funny because in both — I don't know. In every case it's like whatever you grow up with to some extent feels normal to you. You know what I mean? And so whatever your family culture is, whatever your life is like when you're small, sort of feels like it's how things are. You imagine it's how things are for most people, and then slowly as you start to step back and see the world, I mean, it's very parallel to what we're doing as we sort of come of age as a species where we sort of see ourselves as, you know, the center of the universe as children do, and then you come of, you know, grow up a little bit and sort of see a wider view of things. And I mean, I was so lucky my upbringing, my dad was the astronomer Carl Sagan, my mom is the writer/producer Ann Druyan, and they raised me with so much like wonder and joy and such encouragement about asking questions and such enthusiasm about learning and, you know, having really profound conversations at the dinner table. And they were both, my mom still is, my father was so gifted at explaining very complicated things to nonexperts, you know? And that is evident in their work, their books, you know, Cosmos the television series. Everything they did, it was so much about making things that can be hard to understand accessible to more people in a very welcoming way. And it's that skill set is really good for parents, and so I was really I really benefited from that growing up. And it's sort of, you know, one of those things where as you get older, the things that you were really lucky to have become more clear because you realize that not everyone got the same privilege, you know? And I feel like as, you know, as I go into the world, I'm a mom now. I have two little kids. I'm just trying to carry on that legacy of making the world, nature as revealed by science, as thrilling and the source of as much pleasure, not just information, but pleasure and connection and joy. I think it's really powerful and I think we just have this fallacy often that, you know, facts are cold and hard and we don't like them and they don't feel good and they are, you know, generally unpleasant and things would be better if it was just, you know, unicorns.

[00:15:56] Adam Gamwell: But that'd be cool, too.

[00:15:57] Sasha Sagan: Yeah, I mean, that would be cool, too. But like I don't know. There's like all — like people get really excited about unicorns, but there's like some really cool animals that exist.

[00:16:06] Adam Gamwell: That's true.

[00:16:06] Sasha Sagan: And I just feel like, you know, maybe there should be a little bit more focus on how magical an octopus is. I don't know. I mean, I'm kinda joking around, but like, you know? There is something in that where we just like we negate. Once we understand how something works, why something is the way it is, we have this tendency to lose the awe. And I think there is a way to have both. And I think that there's a parallel to like when we're talking about our all our idiosyncratic behaviors as human beings or as Americans or as, you know, people in the 21st century or whatever it is. I think there's a way to say like, wow, this is a really peculiar, really kind of arbitrary thing we do, maybe something that's even totally vestigial part of something that we don't even think is true anymore or, you know, is just a holdover from like a whole bunch of beliefs that we're ready to shake off and still find some like poetry in it and not hold onto the parts that don't stand up to scrutiny. Let those fall away. But maybe there are some little elements of it that we can, you know, find real beauty and purpose and value in. And if not, even if we're ready to let go of some of these, you know, old customs, still see them as a kind of little poem about who we are or who we were and, you know, what we're all about, you know? I still think that there's something really revealing about so much of what we do, and I think that, you know, our behaviors are elements of us that are so specific to this time and place in human history, I still really relish understanding them and still get a lot of pleasure out of them, even when some of the mystery maybe falls away.

[00:18:09] Adam Gamwell: Well, it's kind of like we place so much value on the mystery itself, right? So when we understand it, it's like, okay. Well, the "how," I don't care now, right? And it's like our entire obsession with true crime, right, is like there's a macabre event but it's really about how it happened and who did it, you know? And that's interesting.

[00:18:25] Sasha Sagan: I mean, that's a whole other — yes. I mean, that's like actually, that would be a really good episode of "Strange Customs," to do an episode about true crime. But yes, no, the mystery, we really do like almost fetishize this idea of a mystery, and once we understand something, we lose interest in it. And I just think that there, I mean, the example that I always give and that like for my whole life, no matter what, this will never cease to amaze me, but like there is a secret code in your blood that connects you to your ancestors, to everyone whoever lived. It has information about you. It can solve mysteries. People who were adopted, people who left their, you know, village somewhere and went somewhere else, like ancient like how pharaohs were related to one another — all of these things that seemed lost to time until very recently. There is a key that can unlock countless mysteries inside your body. But by the time we learn about DNA in like sixth grade and do like a worksheet about alleles, we're completely over it. You know what I mean? And I just feel like there's so many things like that where if we presented them with this sense of awe and astonishment that, you know, people felt when it was first discovered or first understood and we could carry that forward, I just think it would be better.

[00:19:55] Adam Gamwell: I agree. It's funny like when — so when I was an undergraduate, I studied both religious studies and anthropology. Didn't know what direction I would go in. And it was I always found this tension that I leaned towards the anthropologist, the more scientific, humanistic, scientific side. But I always found religious text and writing were alive and like they actually were not afraid to be awe-inspired, especially if you're reading something like Saint Augustine or, you know, like some of the founders of different religions or, you know, texts attributed to the Buddha. But and there's always this kind of back and forth where anthropologists of old — and still I think a little too much today too — tend to explain away the feeling of awe, right? And it's kind of like if you have a sense of wonder, it's 'cause you don't understand it. And if you understand it — like the idea like, I mean, the idea of like if facts are kind of cold and hard, then like scientific observation is also cold and hard, right? Understanding is also. So I think that's a really interesting moment. I think we have a like a unique opportunity today, even the way you're describing the, again, how do we bring that awe back? How do we provide space for it? Because it's always there, right? And we on one level attribute it to children, and then for some reason adults are not supposed to feel that way. And then secondarily, the more you, quote unquote, know, the less awe one feels, and I think this is a really interesting, it's a — I mean, I don't wanna sound overly dramatic. It's pernicious that like our culture, we tend to push that we shouldn't feel that way.

[00:21:18] Sasha Sagan: Oh, I don't think that's over dramatic. I think that's totally accurate. And I think it's almost like it's like cool to be blasé. You know what I mean? Like it's like we're —

[00:21:28] Adam Gamwell: Hashtag cool to be blasé.

[00:21:30] Sasha Sagan: Yeah, exactly. Like it's just like this idea that like it's like somehow embarrassing to be like "Holy moly." I mean, these very everyday things. And I do think that children are like that. And I do think that — I mean, when my daughter was like really little, like two and three, every time she saw the moon, she would freak out and be like, "Moon!" And we'd be like, yeah, the moon! Moon spotter — that's what we'd call her — moon spotter. And like it was like a celebration every time we saw the moon. And like it's really easy to be like, yeah, the moon. Okay. Let's move it along. Like you know what I mean? It's bath time. You know, it's really easy to just not be that enthusiastic about the moon once you are in your, you know, third decade of seeing the moon, you know? But I just think that like children get the message from adults that it's not as exciting as it could be, but really the adults should be getting the message from the children. This is something to celebrate. This is majestic and beautiful and, you know, just in and of itself profound. And here we have, you know, this natural satellite that orbits our planet and changes over the course of the month. And imagine what it was like when we had no electricity and even maybe before we had domesticated fire, where if the moon was not out, it was complete darkness. And if the moon was out, you could see. And just thinking about all these things, all these little tributaries you can go down with a little kid or with yourself as an adult or other adult to really find like this beauty where it's like really easy to, you know, sometimes they feel like these kinds of celebrations, not, you know, not in a formal sense, but this kind of enthusiasm. Like we end up going down like a road that's like a little bit more like, you know, like a hippie crunchy, maybe some questionable relationships with like crystals and stuff like that. And, you know, so like that becomes unscientific. But I think just the purely scientific elements of it, like could we find a way to just have, you know, that kind of wonder about these things? And I think it's just the same way that like, you know, when children go through that phase where they say, "Why," you know, constantly, adults get self-conscious if they don't know the answer. It brings up their own, you know, questions sometimes when it's a really deep, profound question. Maybe they're not sure how they feel. You know, what happens when you die? Like what's God? You know, all these things where they have to like wrestle with these really profound questions and maybe they're not totally settled on how they feel or if it's like where, you know, sometimes questions that they just don't know the answer to and it's embarrassing and they feel like they can't say "I don't know." You know, we all we have all these insecurities about what we know and don't know, and so kids sort of get the message sometimes to stop asking those questions. But if there is a way to keep that going and also normalize that nobody knows everything and that asking a really hard question is a good thing, I think we would be better off.

[00:24:58] Adam Gamwell: Right on. I mean, and that I love this idea too and I remember you talk about this in your book also For Small Creatures Such as We as like the encouragement you got from your family to ask those hard questions and you kind of got a gold star when you were like that's a really hard question. We don't know the answer to that, you know? And imagining that like for more families I think is a really powerful idea. I mean, this doesn't sound as sexy perhaps, but the idea I think that there actually is a strange custom we have of needing to know things in a way like if you don't know, you're wrong or stupid or something. And so I wonder about that.

[00:25:28] Sasha Sagan: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, I talk about in my book about like looking things up and when I was a little kid 'cause I'm 40, it was not on the internet, it was in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But like this idea that that was a ritual and that was like a, you know, to look something up in a reference book was like seeking out an answer in a holy text. And it wasn't perfect and it was a very specific amount of information from told from the perspective of a very specific group of people in one time and place, you know? But it was what we had available and there was something about it that was really beautiful and special. But yeah, I think you're right. This — I was just talking about this with someone today like this idea of our fear of admitting we don't know or admitting that we were wrong, you know, in an interpersonal way but also in a public way, you know, it's really hard for us, but it should be celebrated to say, oh, I totally — I mean, it's very, you know, this is how science moves forward and how human beings move forward, you know, to say, oh, I really thought this thing. It turns out it's not true. I have more data now, and I can change my perspective. I think that's heroic.

[00:26:47] Adam Gamwell: I agree, too. And I would love to find more ways to kind of encourage that. It's funny because I'm thinking about this in terms of, you know, folks that are applying for a job, right? And a job interview is like a, you know, war path of like saying, I know the answer, I can do this. And like, you know, you practice how to like have you can judo any question that you get asked. And it's this interesting idea of these rituals we perform like the job interview where you can't say "I don't know." I've heard now like there's more discussion of it's okay to be like, I don't know the answer to that. But, you know, thinking through these different customs that we have, right, that we feel like we have to demonstrate certain kinds of knowledge, and if you don't, then it's a no-no. But then, it's interesting, yeah. Like why couldn't we kind of add in this idea of unknowing as part of it? I mean, wasn't that an entire — I forgot now, but the great cloud of unknowing was a mystic tradition I think they had in ancient Judaism. Don't quote me on that.

[00:27:38] Sasha Sagan: Yes. Yes. Well, I will say that's one thing I do really connect to about Judaism, even though the theological elements and, you know, there are other elements that I don't. The idea that like asking questions and debate is celebrated and that there's not really, you know, this thing about like two rabbis, three opinions, like that the idea that there is not a singular authority, you know, and that it's like debating, you know, deep ideas is part of the tradition. I do really like that. But yeah, I mean, this thing about not knowing in a job interview. Like but wouldn't you rather employ the person who will say when they don't know the answer rather than like make something up? Like that's not better, you know?

[00:28:22] Adam Gamwell: Right. Yeah, no, totally right. You know, it's again like what is the we may say the unintended consequences of the customs that we have, right? Like whether we promote something or not, then like obviously it'll still have an effect, right? That's it'll still alter the outcome of what comes after that, so it is an interesting question. Maybe as part of that is learning to ask like, okay, what are the consequences of the way that I'm thinking that this should go, you know? And if we think about that, I mean, it makes me think also of — you know, self-disclosure. I'm a Burner. I go to Burning Man and Burning Man-type events — and, you know, for me, one of the things that was most powerful about that as also a secular person was that it actually is to me built on both community, which is something that we need like the congregational aspect of being with others, and then there's a lot of playfulness and awe and wonder as part of it because it is large arch sculptures out in the middle of either desert or by a beach, you know, and these very weird things and people dressed up in their, you know, their actual costumes or Halloween costumes, you know? They're their true selves depending on how you'd read it. And so it's like it's all the things that I love about certain things, again like Halloween and then about the idea of like the congregational aspect of a religious group, you know, and then, but then to me comes in a very weird, you know, Mad Max-y way but.

[00:29:33] Sasha Sagan: You know, first of all, that's also should be totally now I'm gonna have to do an episode on that, too. Good call. And yeah, I mean, right. And it's like the art element, and I would put costumes, you know, fashion in that genre of art like that, I mean, that is so central to virtually every belief system, you know, every deeply held belief system and like iconography and like all these little symbols and ways we communicate and signals we give each other through that, you know, visual art form is so, so interesting and it really does. It's so fascinating the way we manage to do that and how you can look at some like, you know, these little elements of a costume, you know, or that are references to something and you just immediately know like, okay. Well, that person is dressed as Tinker Bell or whatever. And like, you know, whatever it is. I don't know. I just I find that so interesting — all those nonverbal, nonwritten forms of communication that we manage.

[00:30:38] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. I agree, too. And there's statistics I've seen. I mean, I don't, again, I don't know how true these are, but just this idea that the majority of actually how we communicate is nonverbal, right? We use language obviously. It's very weird for a podcast to say this, right, 'cause if you're just listening to this, okay. I don't know how you guys are signaling with your hands. But, you know, but just this idea that a lot of how we communicate, right, is thinking through dress, through our body language, through the way that we, I mean obviously intonation and inflection can make a difference too in addition to the words we're saying, the vocabulary. But then also, this kind of notion, right, that there's so much more and other ways of communicating that I think is, you know, also we're at this amazing time, right, where we can hop on the internet and then we can look at art, we can go to an art exhibition, right? You know, we can have the good fortune of going to a museum down the road. I'm just curious too 'cause it's like there's been these, you know, shifting conversations over the past few years with the rise of things like the Metaverse, which I think is a BS term. But, you know, but just the idea of because it's already existed for the past 20 years. They just, you know, didn't call it that. Marketing. But you know, but just this notion too of like what does connectivity mean and like how we can like engage with one another in digital spaces too. So I'm curious about this too like how we might think about what language can become and like how can we learn to communicate as our mediums change too. So it's like I like the kind of the bigger theme we're building around the idea of like what, you know, what beliefs we have, what customs we have, and how they can change over time. Like I love the idea, you said, like they give them like little poems that they're like they're kind of a bit of who we were. But then also as the mediums are changing in radical ways, you know, in our lifetimes obviously, you know, it's like I'm in the same age as you but it's like when we, you know, of course when our parents would talk about, you know, well, we had a black and white TV or didn't have a TV or your grandparents, you know, didn't have that either, and it's like the idea of like how quickly our mediums have changed, you know? What does that mean for us?

[00:32:30] Sasha Sagan: It's astonishing. I mean, my dad had me kind of late in life. And so, I mean, not that late but like, you know? He was born in 1934 and like when he said like we didn't have a television, like we had a radio, I was like, how did you live ? Like that is so — I can't even. Like you couldn't — and it's funny now doing a podcast, which is basically radio. But I was just like that sounds terrible. But now, and I think and he died in 1996 and I think so often about I've written about this as well, like if I could show him like an iPhone, you know what I mean? And just and talking about communication and talking about, I mean, short — like of course I don't need to enumerate all the, you know, shortcomings of our moment in terms of technology and social media and all the pitfalls and dangers, but and surely like that's real for sure, but the idea that you can talk to anyone no matter what language they speak, you can communicate with them, I mean, that is unbelievable to me. And again, this is another kind of version of like holding onto this awe where like, I mean, even right now, so for you listening, Adam and I can see each other while we're talking and like a video call like that was really like this when I was little, when you were little, like that was really like, okay, I get it, this takes place in the future was to be able to see someone talk and talk to them face to face when you're in different places. And like that really felt so, so futuristic, so, so advanced. And now, we do it all the time to the point where it's, you know, ugh, I have another Zoom. Like it's kind of a drag and it's magic. I mean, it really is astonishing. And like of course when we were all stuck inside and Zoom was the only way, it was it got old fast. But I gotta say there were a lot of conversations and there are a lot of conversations that I have with people on, you know, in other places around the world or, you know, just even other cities in the United States that I wouldn't get to have and I learn from those conversations and I understand, you know, human beings more deeply the more of those conversations I can have. And there is something so profoundly beautiful about that. And there is something different about seeing someone's face while you're talking to them than talking to them on the phone.

[00:35:10] Adam Gamwell: Oh, a hundred percent. It's interesting too 'cause it's like the — I don't know if it's the devil or the angel's advocate in me but like, you know, the notion here too that because of like the pandemic, you know, really made us get on Zoom and to your, yeah, it was like both this great thing and the magic that we can do that, and then also, obviously there was the fatigue angle. But what's really interesting too is like another I think really positive thing happened that we don't always recognize and that's we also then learned to articulate why a phone call is helpful. Like why would I don't have to look at somebody's face or look at myself basically on a little screen?

[00:35:45] Sasha Sagan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally.

[00:35:47] Adam Gamwell: You know? And like I think that's interesting too 'cause we also like say what else matters? Like why is actually a phone call like restorative? I can just put this on a walk, you know? And I think that's really interesting also that like we — I guess it's we win, we get both. We can then both have the video magic and you can say, wait, this is actually why I prefer to talk at this point, and I can go do something else, you know? It is really powerful too, and that this is I think buzzing in my head as we're saying this, you know, 'cause it's like in the same vein of trying to think about like while we see a lot of conversations about fatigue, I think you're right that there's such magic that we're able to do it and then to have video chats to be able to communicate with anybody to — I mean, I can like talk into my iPhone in English and have it spit out Russian, you know?

[00:36:30] Sasha Sagan: It's amazing. I mean, it really — I mean the whole thing. I mean, and just like not to mention, I have a question like, you know, what is the population of the capital of Estonia like and it's just like a zero amount of time has to pass before I can get the answer. And like that is so different than everything that happened until like five minutes ago.

[00:36:55] Adam Gamwell: Yes. Right? In the clock of human history, right, that lasts 0.003 seconds for it to do that.

[00:37:01] Sasha Sagan: Yes. Exactly.

[00:37:03] Adam Gamwell: But totally. I mean, have you — I'm curious to think about both for your podcast, for your book, and your work as you just think about in general, like as you think about this question of like something we had talked about before too is that, you know, asking questions at home was an important and encouraged piece of being. And so I'm just curious also how your work, your writing, you know, you use a lot of memoir, you use expert interviews. You, you know, use, kind of back and forth kind of engaging fun conversations in your podcast work. Like how do you think through these mediums as ways of telling stories? This is something that I'm always fascinated about too and disclaimer or transparency comes from my own vulnerability as an anthropologist that like typically again, I think we write very dryly, you know? I think it's not very accessible, and like you, I'm actually I do better listening. I'm quite a slow reader, and so I started podcasting as both a form of therapy, but then also as a form of I can then catch up because I can't read fast enough, you know?

[00:37:56] Sasha Sagan: Hundred percent. I mean, I listen to audiobooks like on like 1.5. I mean, depending on the narrator, but like and I can get it and I can listen and fold laundry at the same time and I read a book and it is — I'm just a very slow reader, too. Totally. I mean, writing, I do love writing because I love like to be able to move things around. Like that does really, especially like in, I mean, not even just in a book, but like in an essay that's, you know, a few pages long, I think what really helps me the most in writing was the idea of like once I could really get comfortable with the idea that the first job is to just get out every idea or piece of information or little anecdote that is related to this on the paper and don't worry if it makes sense and don't worry if it's in the right order and don't worry if you've said the same thing three times, just get it all out and then you can organize it. I mean, a friend of mine said he is an author and he is writing a book and he's a historian and he said something where and he's like, oh, well, I've written like 19 of 22 chapters in my next book. And I'm like, you write your chapters in order? Like what a psychopath. I was like I cannot imagine being like chapter one. Anyways, it's just not how my brain works. He's brilliant. No shade. But I was like that sounds horrible. But I will say every time one of my friends says like, oh, how's it going with the podcast? I'm like, oh my God. Talking is so much easier than writing for me. Like I really, really do find — and listen. I mean, it's not perfect and I stammer and, you know, I luckily have a wonderful producer who makes me sound a little bit more linear, but like, you know, it's not perfect, but it's also, I don't know. It just comes more naturally. And I just love, you know, being able to be the person who asks questions. I love interviewing people. And before in my like, you know, many years ago, I worked in television a little bit and like would write questions for like interview shows. I didn't host them and, you know, someone else asks the questions, but I loved that job. And, you know, sometimes I try to put forth my ideas or opinions about, you know, answers to questions like I'm doing right now with you. But I do feel like asking questions is so much more fun. I mean, no, this is really fun. Don't get me wrong. But I just mean that there's something about like being like I'm gonna come away from a conversation with new information. And this is very conversational, so I am getting a lot of new information from you. But like there's something about that being like I'm gonna learn something versus like I'm gonna tell someone something. You know what I mean? And I don't know. I am really — I don't know if there's something. I think it's really, really interesting that like podcasts are so popular and people love them so much and that like that form of media is growing, you know, when a lot of other forms aren't. I think there's something really interesting about that that, you know, part of it is, you know, people have a long commute or something. You can't like watch a movie while you drive a car. You shouldn't do that.

[00:41:24] Adam Gamwell: You shouldn't do that.

[00:41:26] Sasha Sagan: But, you know, part of it is I think that kind of like what you were saying about what's good about the phone. Like yeah, you know, pacing around your house, you know, tinkering with things while you're like it's almost like it's like when you're working on something and you have to take a break to do like to play Wordle or whatever. You know what I mean? Because it's like your brain can't just totally be completely focused on one thing for very long and you need something else in there. And I think that learning or listening or understanding or, you know, getting something out of listening while you use your eyes to do something else is I don't know. I think there's something really, really valuable about that.

[00:42:14] Adam Gamwell: We're gonna take a quick break. Just wanted to let you know that we're running ads to support the show now. We'll be right back.

[00:42:24] I was pleasantly surprised when I've done a lot of work in podcasting for a while now and, you know, I've had colleagues working at NPR or other like PRX public radio stations and exchanges and, you know, one of the pieces of advice I was given a while ago that really stuck with me was that podcasting is a distracted medium. People are almost always doing something else when they're listening to you. Like you're doing your laundry. Like I just I've washed dishes on podcast, you know? It's like I also lost a commute because of a pandemic, you know? So you gotta fill that time in somewhere, you know? And so even thinking about that of like how we deliver, how we make sure that we are hopefully interesting and heard by audiences, and how do we connect with them? And so I was like that idea I thought was really, you know, has stood with me. And then, I was surprised that — I was talking with a journalist for another project last year. And she also said the same thing about writing for newspapers to her is that like you have like the audience is gonna be distracted. You have to get to the point quick, put it up top, you know, get your headline. And I'd never thought about news writing that way either but that also it makes sense. And I was like, wait, are we ever not distracted?

[00:43:27] Sasha Sagan: Right. Well, I believe when you're like reading a novel in bed and everyone else in the house is asleep, maybe you can be like — or a movie. Like I don't like, you know, sometimes we have the TV on, you know, in the background, but like if we're watching like a movie or like, you know, a good like an HBO one-hour drama, we do not look at our phones. We pause if someone needs to get a snack. Like we are like this is totally like I can't like something that is like, I mean, I'm not talking about like having HDTV on in the background like that. I'm not like sitting like fully like — from commercial. What's gonna happen with this renovation? I'm not talking about that. But like something that is — and no shade to HGTV — but something that is like art. You know what I mean? Like let's say a film or, you know, like a really great series. Like my husband and I like we just watch. Like we don't do anything else. I'm like we pause if we have a comment. I mean, it's really annoying for other people if there were other people watching with us, I'm sure. But like I don't know. I do feel like there are some mediums where you really can't miss a shot. You know what I mean? If something is really beautifully made and like you know the director and you know, the editor have put so much thought into it. Like I really do respect those forms of art in a way where I feel like you're missing you're gonna miss something if you are kind of like half-listening or half-watching but, you know, it takes some energy to really focus and, you know, you gotta be in the right mood for it.

[00:45:06] Adam Gamwell: Totally. That's funny. My wife does the same thing. She's like, pause, wait, okay, hold on. Okay. That character was actually related to this person, right?

[00:45:11] Sasha Sagan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Wait. Didn't he say that he was the guy who went — Yeah, no, totally.

[00:45:16] Adam Gamwell: Wait, that was. Yes, totally. Yes, I know. If people watch with us two — we could watch together, it'd be fine. But like otherwise.

[00:45:22] Sasha Sagan: Yes, totally.

[00:45:22] Adam Gamwell: Stop pausing. As soon as you have, you gotta break those down, you know? That's part of the work I think, you know?

[00:45:29] Sasha Sagan: Totally.

[00:45:30] Adam Gamwell: No, but that's, I mean, very helpful to think about too in terms of like I think for folks that are like trying to get into creative spaces or if they're in them or just thinking about does this work or does this not work for me? 'Cause it's one of those like I always would I always wanna be a writer. I know a lot of people that also wanna be writers. I guess that's a club of wannabe writers, right, you know? But spoken word always worked better, you know, and so a bit of it is like how do we not fight the tide of what works for us, you know, and like understanding what that can be. And I'm curious about with you. Were you in that process, yeah?

[00:45:58] Sasha Sagan: Oh, no. I mean, I feel like that's a such a great point about like not fighting the tide of what works for us. Like in this whole conversation around rituals and traditions and customs and we're so often feel beholden to this like "should" of what our ancestors did or I don't want my grandmother to be mad at me or like, well, this is how you do this thing when you get married or when you have a baby or at Christmas time, you know? This like and versus the idea that all of these traditions are constantly changing. No one is doing things the way that they were doing them, you know, their ancestors were doing them a thousand years ago. It has to all of these things have to mutate in order to survive and evolve, you know? And that like if we have this war within ourselves between like going through the motions because we think we should and doing something and sometimes creating something new that actually represents what we believe and what we enjoy, you know, I think that that's like — like the more we can just let go of that feeling of like, well, it should be this way, in most cases, you know, it's just it's a totally artificial idea of what these regulations are that we're supposed to be following. But yeah. In terms of like writing versus talking in my own work, I don't know. There's something about a book. I do really enjoy writing essays. My book is a little bit like a series of essays I think, and so that was better for me. I think I would have a pretty tough time like writing a novel, but nonfiction, you know, relatively concise I hope.

[00:47:56] Chapters about, you know, these experiences. I mean, you know, each chapter, you know, is some element of this spark within all these shared customs, you know, around the world, whether it's birth and coming of age and death or, you know, the solstices and equinoxes and, you know, the lunar cycles — all these things that we've built, these customs and beliefs around the world. You know, in all these disparate cultures that had no contact, we found often the same moments in our lives and in our annual cycles to mark, and it's astonishing. I mean, it amazes me how when you pull back this, you know, first layer of the costumes and the set and the lines, we are celebrating the same things and marking the same moments. It's really it's almost unsettling. It's so astonishing. And I think that's something like I don't know. It's really beautiful to me. And then this, the amazing thing is so many of these events are scientific phenomenon, you know, astronomical or biological events. And we dress them up in all these different beliefs with all these different deities and all these different myths, but it's really just there is something deep down beneath the surface innately real.

[00:49:35] Adam Gamwell: No. Totally. And it's interesting 'cause like as I'm thinking through the different the ritual pieces that you explore in your book and, I mean, there's a ton that stick with me, but like what's top of mind right now is actually the, you know, you talk about the lunar cycle and the like often belief we have that like the menstrual cycle is related to the lunar cycle and like that's how do we find that evidence or that we can't, but then at the same time, you also mention in that chapter this importance that like as we get evidence, it doesn't make something else less transcendent, right, and understanding those connections was so important than the other side of this I think from the both social impact and social justice angle that like one of the big like shitty things about humanity is that we've always put down menstruation, right, as this like this separation moment. And we see this, again to your point too, cross-culturally. But you said this one thing that I just loved where it was this idea of like what if we celebrated a period every month and something that you get too not to have the period, which is like that you get to do something or this you added to it versus — like that it really sat with me. It's like what an important question and what if we could. That's like it's a moment like why can't we change it? We can. We could change that story and that narrative and customs around that.

[00:50:41] Sasha Sagan: Yeah. And I think, you know, like a mikvah in Judaism. Like there's some, I mean, it depends on the, you know, sect you're in if it's this thing that's a celebration or something that's like. But by and large, it's not considered like a thing to be really psyched about. And I just feel like it's so amazing. I mean, it's so amazing all the things. I mean, this is a whole other topic. But just like how we get more people is so crazy, and like when you learn about it, it's astonishing and like you can't even believe it and you're like that seems not correct. And then, you know, over time it becomes, you know, a very normal idea. And it's like sometimes, but I do think when you have a new baby, you get like a little bit back in that astonishment awe situation where you're like there is a new person. Or you know somebody who has a new baby. You meet a baby. There's a new person in the world. It's wild. I mean, it is wild. And like, you know, there are so many things like that where we get a little glimpse into how strange and wonderful and astonishing and beautiful existence is. And then somehow, we put it out of our mind, you know, and the next thing comes along and we have to do our errands and, you know, reply to our emails and, you know, we go back to the ordinary. But I think, you know, even in the ordinary, there's a way. There must be. I believe there is a way to keep some of that awe and wonder in just the very regular parts of life.

[00:52:31] Adam Gamwell: No, I think so. I think you're absolutely right. I'd like to share something with you that this — it's a personal thing. But like to that point, because I think that is such that's an important part. And so my wife is a microbiologist. Hardcore scientist. You know, when I met her, you know, she and still now still to this day like is so, like her family will kind of laugh at her 'cause she'll stop and look at a mushroom or a leaf, you know, when walking. And so she's the kind of person that is able to just find that moment of awe, and so it's been really a joy to grow with her. But like to do that same thing, so we go to the beach and we just go stare at crabs or like, you know, look at the sand and remember that we can and basically whatever. So the best thing is like it's always all around us. And it's a bit about, you know, finding that capacity to or remembering I think is really what it is, I mean, you said it up top too. It's like kids are born with it, right? And it's like not socializing it away and then remembering that we can do it, you know? One of the ways that she helped me do this is that — so as we were when we were looking to get married, you know, we were talking about, you know, the whole process, the wedding vows, what's the right ritual activity to do? And so we ended up using in our wedding vows a quote from your mother Ann Druyan around being beneficiaries of chance because, you know, as a fairly secular person, like it's how do we actually understand the importance of relationships, right, that we have and the ephemerality of them, you know? And so it's — so we actually, we read a quote as one of our things from her, you know? But about this idea like that pure chance can be so generous and so kind, right? And that we, you know, we like we know we may not see each other we won't see each other again after this, but that is such the power then to see each other now, you know, and have this idea. And that it's to me it's like one of my favorite quotes of all time too. So thank you to your mom for saying it.

[00:54:30] Sasha Sagan: I will pass that along to her for sure. That's so beautiful. And, you know, I have to say like — first of all, thank you for telling me that. That's so beautiful and so moving. And I do really believe that, you know, we have this idea that it's too painful to imagine that there's nothing after this, you know? And here we are — talking, walking, doing our things. And whatever it is, this animating thing goes away and it's gone forever. And like the idea of everybody who loves a person, it's excruciating to think about how that is it's finite. But I really do believe that like pushing through the discomfort and pain of that to the other side where we realize that it's because it's finite that it is magnificent that we are here right now, and if you love someone, you know, you are close with your family, you have a best friend, you have, you know, these deep connections, these relationships that you can experience right now. I think the idea that it's not permanent actually makes it more beautiful and makes those bonds deeper. And I think that, you know, we're so afraid of the pain of, you know, really reckoning with the brevity of our lives. But I think it's more beautiful because it's not forever.

[00:55:54] Also, I think in terms of like the wedding planning, I do think like I'm curious what your thoughts are on this as an anthropologist, but like there's something about when a baby is born, when you get married, and when you have to plan a funeral. Like planning of like to raise a child together, planning to throw a wedding, and planning to have a funeral. Those are these moments where people who often don't otherwise have to think about what they believe, what they value, what they think is true, what they think is not true, what they hold like sacred — you could go years and years without thinking about any of that stuff, and then those three moments I think bring up these conversations that we tend to put off often until those moments. And there's something that is to me, especially with the wedding element and I think the other two as well, but I think more and more we're seeing this creativity come out where people, you know, our age and younger who are sort of like letting some things fall away and not going through the motions because it's the "should" and finding other ways to celebrate the core of someone's life after they're gone, the core of a union between two people, the core of a new life in the world without just this sort of, you know, framework that, you know, we just sort of have a worksheet we fill out with all the, you know, this form of this is the way we've always done things. And I think that I'm curious from your perspective if you feel like there is more innovation in these areas of human life over the past decade or two than there has been previously.

[00:57:47] Adam Gamwell: Yes. I do think so. I mean, this is something I've been thinking about a lot too. And I would agree that we — as far as, I mean, again, I am sample size of one here. But, you know, in terms of as folks we talk to and like just see, yes. Like the one the explosion of — okay, I'll give some numbers, right, but the explosion of the wedding industry in terms of what services are offered is massively bigger than it was 30 years ago. The like explosion of what people wear, like how and where they'll do weddings, wedding size, family inclusion or not, like we are seeing a much bigger configuration, to your point.

[00:58:21] Sasha Sagan: And who officiates the wedding. I kind of think that's the biggest thing. I, you know, have one of the online whatever it's called — universal, you know, like marryyourfriends.com or whatever it is. Yeah, like that's not real website. Just for those of you listening, don't go to marryyourfriends website. It's probably something weird. But, you know, where you can get license and — to a wedding. I have a friend of mine like six years ago and like I do feel like, you know, as people become less religious and they — so often you go to weddings now and it's this is the person who introduced us or this is, you know, my like kooky aunt or whatever. You know what I mean? And this is and like it's way more representative of the couple than just the neighborhood clergy person.

[00:59:19] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. And the institution, right? Yeah. Yes, and I think that's exactly right. Like that's been kind of this big shift. I mean, to me I like it 'cause I participated in it that way, you know? But I think that like it's this interesting question of that people are yearning for authenticity, right, in their lives. And there's something about for some people like I can lean on the institution and that gives me that sense that that's the real thing 'cause it has a lineage. It's a thousand years old. For other people that says that has no meaning to me. Like I actually need to do what feels like I'm gonna feel grounded, connected to my community. And so there's I think there's been a loosening of those bonds that it's okay to then pursue what means something. People may not say it that way, but that's what I feel like we're seeing kind of on both sides. I'm gonna lean towards the institution or what's the new configuration because, you know, there's — especially if we're saying in the last decade, right, there's been a massive proliferation of online world and mass consumerism, and so everything is manufactured it feels like, and so it's I want something real. And those the three moments you mentioned too of like birth of a child, marriage, and a funeral are three moments you can't fake, right? You can't, I mean, you can most likely fake a wedding, I guess, but you're less likely to.

[01:00:26] Sasha Sagan: If it's on a reality TV show, you can probably fake a wedding. But yes, the other two are really, yeah, incontrovertible.

[01:00:34] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, so I wonder about that, too. I think it's a great question. I also appreciate that you're asking questions, too.

[01:00:39] Sasha Sagan: Yeah, sorry. I got confused 'cause I'm used to asking the questions now.

[01:00:44] Adam Gamwell: That's fine. I love it. I love it, no.

[01:00:45] Sasha Sagan: Like where are my notes? No but yeah, I mean, I really like I really do I feel like I'm doing like this, you know, this show that is like a little bit like a layperson's attempt to anthropology and like, oh, like I should be asking you questions. But no, I mean, actually one of the things that we had talked about before is this, you know, idea central, you know? I mean, we talked about it. I was like is this passé now or is this a real thing that anthropologists still go by, this idea of like making the strange familiar and the familiar strange? And like that when I first heard that however long ago that was like that really just, you know, the emoji with the top of the head off, you know? Yeah, exactly. The mind-blown emoji. Like I really feel like that was like my reaction because I do think that there's something so powerful about that idea and I think that it really, and this is something that I talked about we talked about a little bit in the Jedidiah Jenkins episode of "Strange Customs," like I do really think that that idea can sort of be the antidote to a lot of xenophobia and a lot of prejudice. Like this idea that what we're doing, well, which feels normal to us 'cause we've always done it. But what if you looked at it from the outside? And then, here's this other thing that you never heard of anyone doing and maybe you even, you know, initially have this like a reaction to it that's like or like, you know, seems like too strange to even imagine. And slowly, you can get closer to it. I think there's something about that. But like if, you know, again like imagining that that's something that is taught earlier and more wisely, what a world we could have and like there are so many elements of technology in this modern world where we can really, you know, an individual person can make the strange familiar in their lives. And I think that that's gotta be a good thing.

[01:02:53] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. No, totally agree. Yes, and I'm glad that the familiar is strange made its way here 'cause it's so true, right? And it's such an important aspect. I mean, it's also still the it's still the same the first thing that you get taught in Anthropology 101, you know?

[01:03:08] Sasha Sagan: Good. Good. That makes me happy.

[01:03:10] Adam Gamwell: Yes. So it's like I'm glad that it sticks around too because, I mean, it's also like that's it's good PR for anthropology, but I also agree with you. I've read more than once that different anthropologists have said that like that idea is the antidote to xenophobia, to your point. I think it is. It's like by understanding the customs of others from their own logical standpoint, right? So it's not saying you believe that that's weird, but more like here's why you think that matters to you. Here's why you think that is what it is.

[01:03:34] Sasha Sagan: And also that we're weird.

[01:03:35] Adam Gamwell: And that we're weird, too.

[01:03:37] Sasha Sagan: 'Cause, I mean, that's the other really crucial part of it is like I really, you know, this is such a this is such a difficult thing like this idea that whatever you're doing is normal and right and whatever everyone else is doing is — like that is such a problem in our society I think. And like, you know, that is such a — I really struggle with that in so many ways where it's like this lack of imagination and lack of understanding where if, you know, I think there's something really, really valuable about seeing yourself and your group as a little peculiar.

[01:04:17] Adam Gamwell: Yes, a hundred percent. A hundred percent. I mean, in the like one final pin on that point too is just that as we think about like what are our cultural heroes as it were, like who do we look up to, who do we learn from, you know? And so even though United States professes itself as a Christian nation, you know, it's also like we are largely a secular society in that most of our gods are Iron Man and, you know, Darth Vader. Well, I guess he's a bad guy but, you know, Luke Skywalker. And that tells us something too like in terms of like where we're getting these ideas from. And like one, we like to have those kinds of stories. But then also, I think you're a hundred percent right that there is I think a correlation between that and lack of imagination, you know, in terms of like can we imagine what else could be? This is actually something that I did in my previous job. We're doing some research with a client about like what role does entertainment brands play in people's perceptions of the world? And like one of the things we found is that we see, you know, folks like on the internet, digital anthropology kind of talking about this, there's this thread of ideas that it's like we are only able to imagine what's based on kind of the stories that we're told most commonly. We can't of course imagine past those, but the majority of people are gonna just gonna draw from what's right around them. And because of that, like we are limiting ourselves to everything is special outside of me as a superhero, right, or something else like that. And like we can tell other stories, you know? This I think is where fiction is super important. But then also to your point, like nonfiction is actually much more instructive sometimes, too. Like what are people's lives like in China? What are people's lives like as farmers in Peru, you know? That we need to be able to look at in that space, and like there is such value in doing that. I mean, this is one of these I know this is a privileged thing to say, but it's like I also think if more people are gonna study abroad or travel, that's great.

[01:05:58] Sasha Sagan: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean, we should be studying abroad. I mean, we talked about this in the same episode that we keep mentioning. But like if, you know, if we could make study abroad free and mandatory or at least, you know, the social norm, what a country we could have in 20 years. But it's true. I mean, this whole idea of America as a Christian country and like there's a great book by Andrew Seidel that I recommend called Founding Myth that really explores this and has some fascinating insights about all the ways in which it was not meant to be a Christian country but certainly it's, you know, there's a lot of cultural elements, you know? And it's I think in the superhero there's something about — and I'm not like a super superhero person, like fan person. So maybe this is an unfair characterization. But at least there are elements of like this idea of like a good guy and a bad guy and like this like the bad guy is bad 'cause he's bad and the good guy is good because, you know, this heroic story and them battling without really much nuance or like gray areas or like ideas about the ways in which human beings are complex, you know? I think there are some parallels to some forms of monotheism, Christianity in particular, that, you know, those things go those kinds of stories seem to me looking at both versions of them from the outside to have some parallels.

[01:07:30] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, and that is a great example of using anthropological thinking to say, okay, if we're looking at two customs from the outside, like what is an interesting connecting thread between them? And this is the type of narrative that we're seeing. So a hundred percent, yeah. It's like I think it's a fascinating question that, yeah, I don't have an answer to either, but it's definitely one that is we need to find a middle guest that'll help us talk between this space.

[01:07:51] Sasha Sagan: Yes, yes. A devoutly evangelical Marvel super fan.

[01:07:58] Adam Gamwell: Gotta be somewhere out there, right?

[01:07:59] Sasha Sagan: Oh, I mean, yeah. I'm sure there's thousands. But yeah, no, I think that that's really interesting. And I, you know, I feel like I have a little imposter syndrome about doing this sort of vaguely anthropological show without being an anthropologist, so I'm really grateful to have this positive reinforcement from you, Adam.

[01:08:19] Adam Gamwell: Right on. Totally. And a hundred percent you earned it too 'cause I think the show's great and I also just appreciate the way — 'cause again, you do this and like 'cause what you helped me understand actually in thinking about this too as an anthropologist is like, how do I also think about making the story stay human, right? Because oftentimes we can veer into like theory land and then that's not it can be interesting, but not always helpful, right? And so vice versa, I appreciate the work that you're doing for also these reasons of like asking good questions, but then also helping us think through people's stories, right? And that's what we need to do. And I'm also saying this to listeners. If you aren't an anthropologist or social scientist too, like it is an encouragement to then think about always through people's stories and oftentimes like non-anthros do it better than we do for some weird reason. So kudos to you also.

[01:09:03] Sasha Sagan: Thank you so much. That's very kind.

[01:09:06] Adam Gamwell: Right on. Well, Sasha, thank you so much for joining me on the pod today. This has been been a super fun and enlightening conversation, so very much appreciate the dialogue and excited to share your pod with the listeners and community. And yeah, hope we can do it again sometime.

[01:09:20] Sasha Sagan: Absolutely. And please, you know, send me any ideas for weird stuff humans are doing that we should do an episode on. I would love, love, love, love. And for listeners too, you know, find me on social media and I'd be delighted to hear what, you know, you know what I think is weird? Thanksgiving and here's why. I mean, it is weird. But, you know, any little customs, any little funny things we do, I'm always eager to hear the stuff that we experience in our lives that makes us feel like a little bit like an extraterrestrial.

[01:09:53] Adam Gamwell: Thanks so much again to Sasha Sagan for joining me on the podcast today. You can check out "Strange Customs," her book For Small Creatures Such as We, and more of her writing through links in our show notes.

[01:10:01] One of my takeaways from this conversation builds on the anthropological adage that we just discussed about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. As Sasha pointed out, the more we deep-dive specific rituals or customs, the more we can see human universals echoing across them. In our rich diversity, we can see unity. And in the traits that we all share, like the need for rituals and customs, we can see a beauty of diverse approaches and pathways. And anthropology reminds us that another world is always possible and we don't have to wait for major life events to question meaning or what matters to us or to find awe and wonder in the tiniest or most mundane of rituals. It's a challenge I offer you to think about.

[01:10:38] As always, I'd love to hear from you and what your takeaways are. What were some of your favorite moments or rituals from childhood that inspired awe in you, and are those rituals the same today? And in what ways are you seeking to make meaning in your life today, whether for yourself, your family, or your community? And what else has Sasha got you thinking about? Shoot me a message as always to thisanthrolife@gmail.com or you get in contact through the contact page on thisanthrolife.org. A huge thank you, dear listener, for joining me once again. Your time and attention are gifts, and I appreciate the time that we get to spend together. So until next time, hope you stay well, healthy, and happy. And we will catch you soon. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell, and you're listening to This Anthro Life.

Sasha SaganProfile Photo

Sasha Sagan


Sasha is the author of "For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World" and host of the podcast "Strange Rituals". Her essays and interviews on death, history, and nature, from a secular viewpoint have appeared in The Cut, O the Oprah Magazine ,Parents Lit Hub, Atmos, and beyond.